Happiness for the Liberal Mind

By Hourigan, Benjamin | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Happiness for the Liberal Mind


Hourigan, Benjamin, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Happiness research has a justifiably bad reputation, writes Benjamin Hourigan. But there's more to happiness than anti-consumerism.

Just two days ago, I was living with my girlfriend. But then we had the worst fight I can remember having with anyone, and she kicked me out.

On top ofthat, I've lost a huge amount of money in my first month of attempting to become a multimillionaire day-trader.

But as bad as I feel, I easily fall back on a technique I heard of somewhere, counting up the things for which I can be grateful. I also know there's no time for moping, since I have serious work to do that I enjoy for its own sake, and hobbies and sensory pleasures to appreciate. To take the edge off my angst, I make a cup of coffee and play videogames.

It turns out I was exercising some of the strengths that a strand of modern psychology - positive psychology - sees as refinable tools to achieve and maintain happiness. But I didn't know it. And why not? After all, I'm a libertarian and I have a particular idea of what makes a good life.

Why shouldn't scientific knowledge about happiness help me achieve it?

Negative happiness

Happiness research has a bad reputation amongst libertarians.

Some will read the name Clive Hamilton and shudder. The former executive director of progressive think tank the Australia Institute is known for his critique of contemporary capitalism as an illness - the 'affluenza' that is the title of his famous 2005 book.

Hamilton draws fuel for his attack on firstworld societies, which he sees as being 'in the grip of a collective psychological disorder,' from the work of Richard Easterlin, an economist whose 1974 paper 'Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?' found that rising income in the mid-twentieth century had not pulled average self-reported happiness up with it.

In Affluenza., Hamilton writes that this is because 'in a world dominated by money hunger, if our expectations continue to rise in advance of our incomes we will never achieve a level of income that satisfies.. . [Easterlin] described this phenomenon as a 'hedonic treadmill'... The only way to win is to stop playing the game.'

Most of us know from introspection that pleasures too often indulged in lose their ability to excite us, driving us in search of new satisfactions. But 'the only way to win is to stop playing the game'? Isn't that a bit extreme?

In the months that followed my trading losses and my epic ejection from hearth and home, I kept investigating the roots of happiness in search of ways to make myself feel better. Happiness was my consolation prize, the alternative to the quest for more and better now that I'd ended up (however temporarily) with less and worse. This is the same thing Hamilton and his kind offer - happiness as an alternative to what we have right now, which in the developed world is usually wealth, opportunity, and freedom.

It's astonishing that anyone would tell us to give these things up, or threaten to take them away. Yet they do. In his 2007 critical survey of happiness research and its policy implications, Will Wilkinson quotes psychologist Barry Schwartz as writing, 'there is some significant subset of people likely to be made better off through heavier taxation... these people reside at the top end of the wealth distribution.'

Schwartz is among those invited over the years to speak at the elite and frequently inspirational TED conferences held annually in California since 1990. In his 2006 TED talk, following his book The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz presented the idea that modern life thwarts satisfaction because we have a wider range of choices than our forebears did. Where they were frequently consigned to a station in life, we can choose ours. We take credit for our successes and feel shame for our failures. Additionally, we must choose the means to satisfy our material wants from a vast array of consumer goods that torments us with the possibility that we could be happier now if we'd chosen differently. …

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